SHOREBIRDS photography by keith carver

Shorebirds have a preference for shorelines and wet habitats along ocean coasts and rivers. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from the 6" long Least Sandpiper up to the 18" long American Oystercatcher. They dine on crustaceans, mollusks, and insects in the shoreline mudflats, using their long bills to probe in a variety of hunting techniques. There are over 180 species of birds around the world that can be classified as shorebirds.

This is a presentation of some of my shorebird photographs taken along shorelines and wet habitats ranging from Canada through New England and south to Florida and Texas. These images represent only a tiny fraction of shorebird species to be found worldwide. For further study and identification, refer to a good bird field guide such as The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd edition.

The following categories are included:

  • Dowitchers
  • Willets
  • Sandpipers
  • Knots and Turnstones
  • Whimbrels, Curlews, and Godwits
  • Stilts and Avocets
  • Plovers
  • Oystercatchers
  • Yellowlegs
  • Mixed Peeps

DOWITCHERS

This shorebird has a distinctive profile and is best known for its sewing-machine-like technique of probing in the mudflats. It is difficult to distinguish long-billed from short-billed dowitchers on the basis of field marks alone but they have different calls. Long-billed dowitchers are found more commonly in the American West.

Long-billed Dowitcher, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
Short-billed Dowitchers, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
Short-billed Dowitchers

WILLETS

This large shorebird has a mottled brown plumage during breeding season, and is gray during non-breeding season. In flight it shows distinctive black wingbars. These are common coastline shorebirds.

Willet

Willets at Ding Darling NWR, Florida

Nesting willet, May 2016, Cape May, NJ

Willet with sand crab

Willet at Sanibel, Florida

Willets, Ding Darling NWR, FL, January

Roosting willets, non-breeding plumage, Ding Darling NWR, Florida, January

SANDPIPERS

The sandpipers are a very large family with many species ranging in size from the 6" Least Sandpiper to the 18" Marbled Godwit. Dowitchers, curlews, snipe and turnstones are also in this family, although I have put them in their own separate sections. This section includes least sandpipers, dunlin, semipalmated sandpipers, solitary sandpipers, baird's sandpipers, white-rumped sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, sanderlings and stilt sandpipers.

Least Sandpiper juvenile
Least Sandpiper, breeding plumage, Cape May, NJ, May 2016
Dunlin, breeding plumage, Cape May, NJ, May 2016
Dunlin, nonbreeding plumage, Sanibel, Florida, Januayr 2016
Roosting dunlins and Roseate spoonbills, Ding Darling NWR, Florida, January
Dunlin, non-breeding plumage, Ding Darling NWR, FL, January
Dunlin, non-breeding plumage
Baird's Sandpiper, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
White-rumped Sandpiper, Weskeag Marsh, Maine

Semipalmated sandpipers migrate southbound by the hundreds of thousands each year stopping in mid-August to fatten up on the mudworms found in the mudflats in the Upper Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick. It is one of the great shorebird spectacles in nature. I visited here at Johnson's Mills in August 2015 along with my friend and bird photographer Karl Gerstenberger.

Semipalmated Sandpipers feeding at mudflats, Upper Bay of Fundy, NB
Semipalmated Sandpipers, Johnson's Mills, NB August 2015
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Roosting Semipalmated Sandpipers, Johnson's Mills, New Brunswick
Semipalmated Sandpipers, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
Semipalmated Sandpipers flight, ventral view, Johnson's Mills, New Brunswick
Semipalmated Sandpipers, Upper Bay of Fundy, NB
Semipalmated Sandpipers, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
Semipalmated Sandpiper, juvenile
Pectoral Sandpiper, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
Pectoral Sandpipers, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
Sanderling, Popham Beach, Maine, August
Sanderling, Sanibel, FL, January
Sanderling, Sanibel, FL, January
Solitary Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper, non-breeding plumage, Sanibel, FL, January

KNOTS AND TURNSTONES

Another of the great shorebird migration spectacles in nature is the arrival in mid-May of the horseshoe crabs along the Delaware Bay near Cape May, New Jersey. This attracts Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones by the hundreds of thousands, who time their arrival to feast on the horseshoe crab eggs, along with Dunlins, Least Sandpipers, and Laughing Gulls.

Red Knot, breeding plumage, Cape May, NJ, May
Red Knot, Cape May, NJ, May
Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones, breeding plumage, Cape May, NJ, May
Red Knots, Cape May, NJ, May
Red Knots, Cape May, NJ, May
Red Knots, non-breeding plumage, Sanibel, FL, January
Ruddy Turnstone, breeding plumage, Cape May, NJ, May 2016
Ruddy Turnstone, breeding plumage, Cape May, NJ

WHIMBRELS, CURLEWS & GODWITS

Although whimbrels, curlews and godwits are all in the sandpiper family, they are large distinctive birds and I have included them in their own separate section. Whimbrels have a long decurved bill used for extracting food from shoreline mudflats, and Long-billed Curlews have an even longer decurved bill. Both Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits regularly visit the east coast mudflats. I have included the beautiful Marbled Godwit in this section.

Whimbrel, Anchor Point, Alaska, May 2015
Long-billed Curlew, Rockport, Texas
Marbled Godwit, Pine Point, Maine
Marbled Godwit, Pine Point, Maine

STILTS AND AVOCETS

Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets are distinctive for their long-legged dainty appearance. The Black-necked Stilt has bright pink legs, and the American Avocet has an upward-curved bill.

Black-necked Stilt, South Padre Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilt, Lower Rio Grande, Texas
American Avocet, Rockport, Texas

PLOVERS

These stocky shorebirds have shorter thicker bills and are in a large family that includes the American Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, the endangered Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, and Wilson's Plover. Also included is the Killdeer, a mostly-inland plover found in fields and sometimes golf courses. The American Golden Plover is a champion long-distance migratory shorebird, nesting in the Arctic tundra and then flying to southernmost South America.

American Golden Plover, Weskeag Marsh
Black-bellied Plover, nonbreeding plumage
Black-bellied Plover, juvenile
Black-bellied Plover, breeding plumage
Semipalmated Plover
Snowy Plover, Sanibel, Florida, January
Wilson's Plover, Bunche Beach, Florida
Piping Plover, breeding plumage adult, Popham Beach, Maine, June

Piping Plover chick

Piping plover chick

Piping Plover adult, alarm call
Killdeer, Hadley, Massachusetts, May 2015

OYSTERCATCHERS

The American Oystercatcher is one of the largest shorebirds, with a length up to 18". It has a long stout orange bill which is used for opening bivalves including oysters and clams, but also for digging up sand crabs.

American Oystercatchers on nest, May, Cape May, NJ
American Oystercatcher portrait

YELLOWLEGS

Yellowlegs are medium- to large-sized sandpipers with distinctive yellow legs. The Lesser Yellowlegs is not only smaller than Greater Yellowlegs, it also has a shorter bill length. The Greater Yellowlegs' bill is slightly upturned. There are also subtle differences in plumage, as shown in these photographs.

Greater (left) and Lesser Yellowlegs, Weskeag Marsh
Lesser (left) and Greater (right) Yellowlegs, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
Lesser Yellowlegs
Greater Yellowlegs, Weskeag Marsh, Maine
Lesser Yellowlegs, Weskeag Marsh, Maine

MIXED PEEPS

A large group of shorebirds will often include mixed species such as semipalmated sandpipers and semipalmated plovers. Birders call these aggregations "peeps." Here are a few photographs of peeps in flight and roosting on the shoreline.

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.